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The Weird Week in Review

Gumby Fails at Robbery

Police in San Diego are offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to a suspect who tried to rob a convenience store in a Gumby costume. He walked in on Monday and demanded money, but the clerk did not take him seriously and told the character not to waste his time. The man left, and the clerk did not immediately report the robbery attempt. The store manager reported the incident after seeing the security video. The clerk, who was not familiar with Gumby, described the perpetrator as "a green SpongeBob SquarePants."

Bear Drives Off, Wrecks Prius

Brian and Cece McCarthy of Pleasanton, California, were vacationing with their son Dylan at Lake Tahoe when their car was stolen. They woke to suspicious sounds in the night, and saw from the window of their cabin that there was a bear in the car!

After the black bear climbed completely inside the car it apparently couldn’t get out. In its struggle, the bear hit the gear shift and the car rolled away for a wild, albeit short, ride down the McCarthy’s driveway, over several boulders, only stopping when it slammed into a neighbor’s front porch.

“All of the sudden we look out the window again and the car is gone, the bear is down the driveway – we have this steep driveway coming out of our cabin – he’s down the driveway across the street,” said Cece McCarthy.

The car was ripped open on impact, and the bear escaped. The Prius was a total loss, and a sheriff's deputy wrote the incident down as "a bear burglary."

20-foot Crocodile Captured in The Philippines

Around 100 villagers in the Philippines worked together Sunday to bind and retrieve a monstrous 6 meter long crocodile that has been terrorizing the community for months. The croc weighed 2,370 pounds (1,075 kilograms) and estimated to be at least 50 years old. Villagers have been hunting the crocodile since a fisherman went missing in July. People also saw a croc eating a water buffalo last month. However, Wildlife official Ronnie Sumiller says there still may be an even larger crocodile in the area, based on eyewitness reports. The captured reptile is an endangered species, and will be relocated to an ecotourism park.

Jail Time for Overdue Library Materials

Christopher Anspach of Newton, Iowa, was sentenced to serve ten days in jail after he pleaded guilty to not returning books and other media to the Newton Public Library. He checked out the items earlier this year and failed to respond when library staff tried to contact him several times. They then turned to matter over to police. Anspach pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft charges over 27 library items valued at $770.67. In addition to the jail sentence and a fine, he is to pay restitution for the books and other materials. There is no word on what happened to the library materials.

Man Calls Police Over Bad Haircut

A man in Drammen, Norway called local police to report that he had been the victim of a bad haircut. The call came from the hair salon, because the man said he could not go outside without a cap -and didn't have a cap. The salon owner said it was too late to do anything about the haircut. The police told the man they would not respond to the call. Unfortunately, no photograph accompanies this story.

Good Samaritans Change Tire, Steal Car

Charlotte Baker had a flat tire and pulled off to the side of the road between Byfield and Boddington in England. While the 28-year-old Baker, who is nine months pregnant, called her boyfriend for help, two men in a white van stopped and began to change the tire on her Porsche 911. Once they were finished with the tire, one man jumped in the driver's seat and took off, while the other fled in the van!

Miss Baker said: “The shock is starting to fade but now I am just reeling. It’s absolutely disgusting, these men have no morals.

“They couldn’t have cared less about leaving me stranded on a quiet road, even when it was obvious I’m just weeks away from giving birth.

Baker was eventually picked up by an elderly man who gave her a lift.

Angry Birds Theme Park Opens In China

An unauthorized theme park based on the mobile game Angry Birds has opened at Window of the World Park in Changsha, China. The attraction is part of a stress-reduction festival that opened on September first. Participants can use a real giant slingshot to knock pigs off a structure, as seen in a video clip. Rovio, the company that produces the game, has filed an intellectual property suit against the Chinese park. Rovio may license the rights to an Angry Birds themed park in the future, but no deal was made with the people who opened the Chinese attraction.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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